Erian on Baradei, Now and Then

From Ahram Online, exposing how one Brotherhood leader has alternated in support and harsh opposition to Mohamed el-Baradei:

Leading Muslim Brotherhood figure Essam El-Erian on Tuesday accused opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei, along with several world leaders, of facilitating the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and demanded their prosecution by an international court.

El-Erian, vice chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, accused former British prime minister Tony Blair, former US state secretary Colin Powell and former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi of having been instrumental to the US invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq ten years ago.

“Defendants should also include the one [ElBaradei] who covered up for the scandal… without saying one honest word that could have saved Iraq from invasion,” El-Erian asserted.

“The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its men, including ElBaradei, who served as agency director for 12 years, should be tried,” he said.

El-Erian’s allegations were met with criticism by many commentators on online social-media networks, who accused the Islamist leader – who had earlier voiced support for ElBaradei – of “hypocrisy.”

“If Mohamed ElBaradei runs in [Egyptian] presidential elections… then we [the Muslim Brotherhood] will definitely vote for him,” El-Erian said in a 2011 interview on Egypt’s Al-Qahira Wal-Nas television channel.

In other footage dating from before Egypt’s 25 January 2011 revolution, El-Erian referred to members of the Mubarak regime who attacked and defamed ElBaradei as “a handful of saboteurs.”

“ElBaradei was director-general of the IAEA and is well-respected worldwide,” El-Erian asserts in the footage.

Perhaps Erian would have a reasonable explanation for his differing assessments, but it would be fascinating to ask him.

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The Battle for Mohamed Mahmoud Street: Conspiracies

Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Site of the Clashes

Note: Yesterday and today Tahrir Square witnessed new violence between demonstrators and the military police. Right before the start of elections, however, demonstrators were engaged in a pitched battle with the regular police. I wrote about it here, but did not delve into the surrounding issues, which were far to numerous and complicated. In this essay I do, aided by the testimony of a participant, which will be provided tomorrow in part two. As for any light shed on the larger question by today’s confrontations, well, that may still need additional reflection. May God aid Egypt.


One of the most confusing aspects of the recent clashes in Tahrir Square is why they happened at all. The basic story, told at length here, is that a small group of sit-in protestors were dispersed violently by police, and as word spread more and more protestors joined their ranks. Eventually several thousand, and then tens of thousands, re-converged in Tahrir, provoking another political crisis which eventually led to the resignation of the government and a promise to hold presidential elections by the end of June 2012. This is not what the protestors were demanding; they wanted no less than the return of the military to its barracks and the immediate transfer of governance to a civilian council. Yet this basic description obscures the fact that over forty people died during these few days of clashes, which is the most likely reason why there were mass crowds at all. Blood and suppression rallied the troops.

But why did they die? Most clashes occurred on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, which leads from Tahrir Square along the American University in Cairo and toward the Interior Ministry. During this time the square itself was peaceful, with one exception when police and army cleared it together, but then immediately re-allowed its occupation. From my observer standpoint the two posited explanations made no sense at all. One, the protestors were trying to storm the ministry and burn it down. Two, the protestors were defending Tahrir against the police, who wished to raid it and prevent further protests. I do believe that participants in Mohamed Mahmoud may well have believed these explanations, one against the other.

But with so many deaths and injuries, why did this fight rage for several days? Protestors could have pulled back to Tahrir and its relative safety; if the police stormed through their aggression would have been obvious. By continuing the fight the protestors enabled accusations against them.

Yet the same can be said of police. Though they suffered far fewer injuries, they could have pulled back to the Interior Ministry and set up barricades. By engaging the protestors so far from these grounds they enabled the accusations of trying to suppress peaceful proteStreet

So was either group then seeking one of these objectives? If police were seeking to clear the square, they could have done so from any number of entry points. In fact this was done (as mentioned), and required little effort at all. Why then did the fighting rage in the side streets?

Perhaps there were a few thousand protestors in Mohamed Mahmoud. Though they threw stones and Molotov cocktails, they were otherwise weaponless. Did they believe they would overcome police? Perhaps. Protests in January led to the burning of several police stations throughout the country, when the police withdrew. This is still a mysterious part of the revolution for me, but it is plausible, however unlikely, there was a real offensive underway.

A Video Depiction of the Conflict

Furthermore, video from Mohamed Mahmoud gives a different picture than the circulated images of ‘warzones’ from the media. This video was filmed on the 20th, while numbers were still growing. It was also filmed during the daylight, and testimony suggests there was more violence after dark. Yet assuming the manner of clashes was consistent throughout, the video depicts a very slow moving conflict.

A vanguard of a few dozen protestors stand at the front lines and throw stones, while another hundred or so mill behind them, with the mass of a thousand or so further back. The story is similar on the police side. One or two move forward with tear gas launchers, or bird pellet shotguns, and fire towards the crowds. Behind them are several others, with even more further back. Every once in a while they charge briefly, but all in all, the conflict rarely moves more than a few meters. Even more telling, between the two sides is the length of at least half a city block, or more. It is not trench warfare; it is a faceoff.

Even so, no one stands their ground to be killed for no reason. Something was at stake, but what?

Seeking Sense through Conspiracy Theories

The assumed implausibility of these two scenarios has led to a number of conspiracy theories. The chief line of conspiracy analysis says the protests were manufactured; excessive violence was employed and blood shed so that protestors would flock back to Tahrir Square. Telling support is marshaled in lieu of the elections, which were only a week away at the time. In whose interests were protests manipulated? That depends on the storyteller, but there are three candidates: The military, the liberals, and the Islamists, with shadowy Tahrir specters floating throughout them all.

Against the Military Council

The conspiracy for the military is simple. The armed forces have ruled Egypt since the 1952 revolution and they are loathe to give up power now. Circumstances have forced the Arab Spring upon them, and they are not entirely opposed, but must remain in control. Elections are a threat, whether liberals or Islamists come to power, so why not engineer a crisis to ‘postpone’ them, and continue to manipulate public opinion back to pre-revolutionary sentiments?

Against the Liberals

The conspiracy for the liberals is less simple. All indications pointed to an Islamist victory in elections, which could well lead to the cementing of an Islamic state in the new constitution. While ivory tower liberals could not engineer this crisis on their own, either the police or the army provoked a situation to delay elections and work towards a situation in which the powers-that-be – business interests, media, the political establishment – marginalize the Islamists. Here is where the simplicity is loStreet

One line of conspiracy imagines this crisis was meant as a trap for the Islamists. One day before the small sit-in was raided Islamist forces led a massive protest in Tahrir Square. Perhaps it was hoped that these forces would be drawn into conflict with the police, and then fall accused of fermenting violence, resulting in widespread discrediting. This is the interpretation publically issued by the Muslim Brotherhood. If it was a trap, they did not fall for it, as they refused to engage. Their official line was that participation would have led to more bloodshed.

The other line of conspiracy accounts for this possibility. The protestors of Mohamed Mahmoud were championed in many circles as heroes against the ‘Mubarak-style’ repression of police. By not joining the protests the Islamists would be seen as abandoning the original spirit of Tahrir Square for their long desired electoral success. In fact, the Brotherhood was panned by many, both political parties and simple residents of Cairo. Yet if it was a conspiracy to discredit them politically it failed, as Islamists are currently sweeping the vote in the majority of constituencies.

Against the Islamists

The conspiracy for the Islamists is complicated. Islamists are suspected of playing both sides of an issue, so they come out the winners on either result. Recounting conspiracies must therefore jump back and forth across possibilities.

In the background is the question of international support. Conventional wisdom and Egyptian history suggest the ruling powers are threatened by Islamists. Yet there is a flip side, casting shadows on all possibilities, that a shift is underway. Some observers believe the ‘West’, the US, and via their international aid the Egyptian military council as well, are now poised to accept Islamist rule provided it respects international norms and the market economy. The Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps, is pragmatic and business oriented enough to accept this arrangement.

If true, or even otherwise, why would Islamists be behind the events of Tahrir Square, which ostensibly threatened elections? It should be noted, first of all, that despite official Brotherhood denials, there were Islamists in the square. Salafis were present in good number, and many youth from the Brotherhood ‘broke rank’ and joined in as well. Brotherhood youth are revolutionary, and forged many bonds with their secular activist counterparts. Conspiracy suggests, though, they could have been there by design.

Why? There are two options. First, as long as the Brotherhood could publically deny their official presence, distance from the ‘revolutionaries’ could help their cause. As most liberal political groups threw their support behind the protestors – winning the sympathies of the Tahrir crowd – the Brotherhood remained in the background as the rest of Egypt grows tired of endless protests. Even if elections were to be postponed, the Brotherhood would do well whenever they were held. Perhaps some leaders even feared their support might not have been as strong as was rumored. An election delay, and further discrediting of Tahrir liberals, might give them a boost.

Second, if the demonstrations in Tahrir succeeded, the presence of Brotherhood youth would allow the group to stake its claim as a revolutionary force, similar to January, when official leaders remained in the background. There would be damage control to render, of course, but if the military council resigned the weight of the Brotherhood could not be ignored in subsequent negotiations.

Another scenario is that Islamists did not want the postponement of elections, but did desire the chaos leading up to it. In fact, they initiated the massive Friday protest preceding the clashes. The security situation in Egypt has been deteriorating with rumors rampant the elections would be terribly violent. Against the backdrop of Tahrir, many average Egyptians might be afraid to go to the polls. The Brotherhood is understood as benefiting from low turnout, as their political machine would be able to command its usual support. While deaths and injuries mounted, Islamists demanded elections be held on time.

Against the Revolutionaries

Finally, the conspiracy for the Tahrir specters is obscure. This theory centers on the makeup of the core demonstrators in the square. That the masses came was necessary, but others call the shots. A murky figure in this camp is Baradei, who was present among them briefly, and hailed as the savior of a proposed ‘national salvation government’.

The mechanisms to achieve success in this conspiracy are unclear however, as Tahrir has no real power. Yet many hard core activists insist on the reality of the term: Egypt has had a revolution, and it is not yet finished. Revolutions are not won through elections, but through the seizing of power by a few. Baradei is not a revolutionary, and he is not in the trenches. He is considered a liberal, connected with Islamists, and under suspicion by many. It is said he has no credibility on the Egyptian street, and could thus never win a popular vote. Is there another operation underway to bring him to power? Is Tahrir the method, whatever that means?

Part Two, focusing on a participant’s testimony, will be presented tomorrow.

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Fruits of the Revolution, A Democratic Referendum – Rejected?

On March 19 Egypt is slated to enjoy its first free election in decades. Following the resignation of President Mubarak the Supreme Council for Military Affairs appointed a committee to draft amendments to the Constitution, according to the demands of the people. The proposed amendments will be put to a nationwide vote in only three days. Yet many of the voices which led the revolution are calling for a ‘no’ vote to be cast. Why would this be?

Many of the amendments reflect exactly the demands made during the protests. Term limits are proposed, allowing an elected president two terms of four years each. Furthermore, there are stipulations putting supervision of elections under the purview of the judiciary – a generally well respected institution whose rulings were routinely ignored by the executive branch. Additionally, the restrictive rules determining eligibility for a candidate for president have been loosened considerably, allowing for greater opposition and independent opportunities. These and other proposals will go a long way to curbing the power of the president, which is in line completely with the demands of the people.

Yet a ‘no’ vote has been urged by many of those who struggled for these changes. Incidentally, the referendum does not allow consideration of individual amendments; the proposal must be accepted or rejected wholesale. Among those rejecting are the traditional opposition parties – Wafd, Tagammu, and Nasserist – who have often been understood to provide window dressing support for the democratic posture of the Mubarak regime. Yet the more dynamic and loosely related youth coalitions which led the revolution have also come down against the changes. So have independent candidates for president, such as Mohamed el-Baradei and Amr Moussa.

Noteworthy in the discussion are those groups which have publically called for a ‘yes’ vote. These are led by the remnants of the discredited National Democratic Party, which governed Egypt during the entire tenure of Mubarak, and the Muslim Brotherhood, their officially banned yet primary opposition. Strange bedfellows are par for the course in politics – what brings these forces together?

While there is a lawsuit pending to dissolve the NDP altogether, there is no necessary reason why it could not reform itself and participate actively in the new Egypt. The NDP was less an ideological grouping than an association of opportunism – it was the best and easiest way to advance in politics. As such, it attracted many who craved privilege and access to facilitated business opportunity. Yet this fancy phrase for corruption should not be leveled at all its members, many of which are understood to have sought the reform of the party from within. Can new leadership purge its dead weight? Or is the ‘dead weight’ still in charge, waiting out the reforms until its network of connections and nationwide organizational structure is free to rule the day through democratic means? After all, politics and money go hand in hand; even a reformed NDP would be well versed in both.

The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, faces internal challenges. It has formed an official political party – named Freedom and Justice – but suffers a fissure between its old guard and youth. The former was cautious during the revolution and negotiated with Vice-President Suleiman when he called for ‘dialogue’ with the forces on the street. The youth rejected this along with their Tahrir Square compatriots. Meanwhile, a breakaway moderate Islamist party from the 90s – Wasat – has also been granted political license, and it is possible other trends will separate from the Muslim Brotherhood proper. Even so, the Brotherhood maintains the best organized political structure of all opposition parties, and stands to make gains in the coming democracy.

These gains seem to factor in to the movement for a ‘no’ vote. It is not purely pragmatic, however, as technical reasons are issued about why certain amendments are flawed. The major argument for ‘no’ however is not with the amendments themselves, but with the resulting Constitution.

Following the resignation of Mubarak the military council suspended the Constitution and dissolved Parliament. If a ‘yes’ vote succeeds, this will result in the reactivation of the Constitution, which was rejected by all as a flawed document designed to cement the powers of the executive branch, and president in particular. While the amendments go far, many state they do not go far enough. The revolution discredited the entire ruling system, including the Constitution; these voices believe an entirely new charter should be drafted through national consensus. These amendments, they say, were crafted behind closed doors by members appointed by the military. Though better representing society than anything in the previous regime, they do not reflect the creative, free voice of the people.

The second step following a ‘yes’ vote would be the holding of parliamentary elections. Though an exact timetable has not been promised – and even if delineated might yet be changed – these elections could be as early as June. Some voices call for presidential elections to be held first, but this does not appear to be the desire of the military council. It can be rightfully argued that a president without a legislature could become a new dictator, and at the least would have a powerful hand to guide the supposedly democratic transition.

Yet the ‘no’ party contests this timeline, stating that early legislative elections would lead to great gains by the NDP and Muslim Brotherhood, as the free and nascent political movements will not have had time to canvas nationwide. Many of these favor the formation of a temporary presidential council, composed of both civilian and military figures, to guide the nation until civil society can accommodate all candidate parties. Added to their concern is the understanding, if not promise, that the new government will indeed craft a new Constitution. While this is desired, if a legislature dominated by former regime members and the Brotherhood has a leading role, liberal forces fear what may develop.

In any scenario, neither the Constitutional amendments nor the military are clear about the next steps. All that is known is that the referendum will be held on March 19. Many oppositional parties desire greater clarity, but they do celebrate the opportunity at hand. Rather than calling for a boycott, they urge wide participation – for a vote of ‘no’. Operating under a newfound freedom, they hope that practices such as these will lead to a deepening of the democratic impulse. Even so, their fears are more than whispers, but the decision, at long last, rests in the hands of the Egyptian people.



CNN on Egypt

Here’s a short post to draw your attention to a video CNN has just produced on a figure named Mohamed el-Baradei. He is the Egyptian former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and is now taking a lead role in the push for ‘change’ in his homeland. He is touted as a presidential candidate in 2011, but many legal obstacles stand in his way, as well as his own hesitation and reluctance. Many in Egypt welcome him with open arms, others view him as a threat, and some believe in his ideals but not in his ability to lead. He is a fascinating character, and if you would like a look into the current and coming political scene in Egypt, this video would be a good place to start.

Click here to view the video on